Hume's subversive radicalism and infidelity make him an unlikely target for today’s iconoclasts, but he stands accused of an unforgivable thoughtcrime.
The first to label himself an anarchist, Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon set the axiom all anarchists defend: “Governments are the scourges of God to discipline the world; for them to create liberty would be to destroy themselves.” Looking to history, it is evident, says Benjamin Tucker, that “it has ever been the tendency of power to add to itself.” Tucker’s fellow American, Voltairine de Cleyre agrees: “the nature of government is to become a thing apart, an institution existing for its own sake.” Adding a significant subtlety, anarchist and abolitionist, Lysander Spooner argues the American polity is misshapen from the get-go: the secret ballot of the voting booth is its corruption because power works its wiles in secrecy. Only forthright power, folk standing in front of one another, openly declaring positions, is honest power and equal to human dignity. Anarchism, then, is not absence of order, but absence of rule.
The Anarchist Handbook resonates with today’s news. From the left, we hear “Defund the police!” and from the right, “No vaccine mandates!” Louis Lingg speaks of “the brutal violence of the police club” and Charles Plunkett laments, “the ruling class has guns, bullets, bayonets, police, jails, militia, armies and navies.” Tucker’s take on forced inoculations is easily gleaned. Writing in the nineteenth century, he says: “No monopoly in theology, no monopoly in medicine. Competition everywhere and always; spiritual advice and medical advice alike to stand or fall on their own merits . . . No external power must dictate to him what he must and must not eat, drink, wear, or do.” It is likely Malice chose his entries with these resonances in mind.
Michael Malice is a well-known anarchist podcaster and very sharp. The Handbook offers readers twenty-two chronologically arranged short essays. As the book cover wittily states in anarchist-speak, the selections are “organized by Michael Malice.” Also befitting an anarchist, the volume is self-published, entries either open source or permissions granted in the case of more recent authors. There is no index, but Malice includes brief comments on each author and the circumstances prompting their thinking.
Selections come mostly from the Russian and American anarchist traditions, with the odd smattering from England, Germany, and France. De Cleyre observes that Americans believe anarchism a foreign import, but her 1909 Anarchism & American Traditions claims continuity with Jefferson. She links anarchism to the Jeffersonian principle that the little precede the great, the local the general. The Handbook does a good job showing that anarchism has a rich, lettered history in the US, intimating the country had more vibrant political options in the past than today. To demonstrate this, I suspect, was no little part of Malice’s intent. Cleverly, he longs for change: “an anarchist world would still have murderers, and thieves, and evil men and women. It simply wouldn’t put them in a position to enforce their evil on everyone else via getting elected and decreeing the law.”
In Malice’s telling, anarchism is decidedly modern, birthed in the age of industry and commerce. It has two schools. Anarcho-capitalists, or ancaps, trust free markets to deliver freedom and services, including just security provision. Anarcho-communists, or ancoms, trust neither government nor markets. Ancaps are an offshoot of liberalism, impressed by Locke’s famous statement: “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” Ancoms reject this account of the ego, as they date, interestingly, to Adam Smith. Smith’s analytics of the division of labour shows both persons and property are inherently social. On account of the division of labour, there is no property or manufacture that is not always already a communal effort.
American Josiah Warren declares “self-sovereignty is an instinct of every living organism.” Self-sovereignty is a “sacred right” and the “whole mission” of government is to secure an ego free of encroachment. Writing in 1863, Warren argues that generals are necessary. In the mass movements of men there is need of leadership: “from the natural necessity for Individuality in the directing mind when numbers wish to move together.” However, a general is no more than a functionary, akin to the driver of an omnibus. The driver cannot presume to know better than the passengers the lay out of the road, nor where they want to go and at which stop they are to alight: “it would be equally ridiculous for the driver, under the plea of upholding subordination, to insist on carrying his passengers where they did not want to go, or refuse to let them get out when they wanted to ’secede.””
To many anarchists, Warren’s trust in government and generals is naïve, his egoism not nearly radical enough. The German Max Stirner labels rights and sacrality as spooks. Much of our political vocabulary is akin to fairy tales, stories told to children to make them think the world is magical and benevolent. He agrees with Warren, the self is absolute, but this must entail that “all existing right is—foreign law.” Power or will is all. It is a mistake to “think that the others must aim at the same goal with me; I do not treat them as unique beings who bear their law in themselves and live according to it, but as beings who are to obey some ‘rational’ law. I set up what ’man’ is and what acting in a ’truly human’ way is . . . Right does not follow from human nature or rationality, therefore, but from what I can grasp: But I give or take to myself the right out of my own plenitude of power, and against every superior power I am the most impenitent criminal. Owner and creator of my right, I recognize no other source of right than—me.”
Papa State, as he calls it, including rights, family, religious authority, are all spooks, and what politics needs is a good old exorcism: “only against a sacred thing are there criminals; you against me can never be a criminal, but only an opponent.” Today’s leftists are especially critical of the industrial-prison complex and this is vintage anarchism. In 1906, Alexander Berkman called the prison system “the State’s work of breeding criminals.” Revenge, he argued, is a feature of primitive man and social progress can moderate the impulse. Prisons are not progress, however, for they consign inmates to “impotent rage.” Furthermore, “the promiscuous mingling” of all sorts of criminals contradicts the goal of prisons: reformation. For Berkman, “No amount of punishment can obviate crime, so long as prevailing conditions, in and out of prison, drive men to it.”
In turn, anarchism derived from egoism is condemned as naïve. Russian ancom Kropotkin argues that Lockeanism ignores the reality of the division of labour, that farming and manufacture intrinsically relies on the collective toil of neighbours, who build and manage roads, bridges, hedges, and looms. He gives a grim image: “Americans mowed down by shot and shell while fighting for the abolition of slavery have helped to develop the cotton industry in France and England, as well as the work-girls who languish in the factories of Manchester and Rouen.”
Ancoms are not state communists. Writing in 1867, the most famous anarchist, the Russian Bakunin argues that leadership is corrosive, since rule always culminates in pride. Bakunin saw in Marx an authoritarian. The two knew each other. Marx offers, argued Bakunin, “an extremely complex government,” but the habit of command ruins even the most noble spirit, never failing to produce contempt for the masses and an over estimation of one’s merits. Psychological insight allowed Bakunin to presciently comment about Marxist government:
It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and contemptuous of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and pretended scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe betide the mass of ignorant ones!
Violence and Change
Tolstoy thinks us hypnotized by government. It is a fiction that we live in well-organized states, he says: “Everything that would disturb the external appearance of well-being—all the hungry people, the sick, the revoltingly vicious—are all hidden away where they cannot be seen.” Bakunin points out that “It is in the nature of the State to break the solidarity of the human race.” This reflects a metaphysical problem, as Stirner explains: “The unbridled ego—and this we originally are, and in our secret inward parts we remain so always—is the never-ceasing criminal of the State.” The state is an “omnivorous abstraction” that must grow, reasons Bakunin, for “unless it were endowed with the omniscience, omnipresence and the omnipotence which the theologians attribute to God, it is impossible that it could know and foresee the needs, or satisfy with an even justice the most legitimate and pressing interest in the world.”
However, freedom stirs constantly in the human spirit, so every state must have police to quash rebellion. History shows “the State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class” with wage-earners “forced by hunger as well as by the political and social institutions, to maintain by very hard work the absolute or relative idleness of others. Consequently, they are slaves.” Tolstoy agrees. Government, he says, has purposefully brutalized a subsection of the people to do violence to others. Through military disciple, soldiers “become submissive machine-like instruments of murder in the hands of their organized, hierarchical stratocracy.” This entails slavery: “But the necessity to do what other people wish against your own will is slavery.” The solution from the greatest of all novelists may surprise and get Tolstoy cancelled because, according to him, slavery follows from the lack of widespread gun ownership: “As of old, so now, people rule over other people only because some are armed and others are not.”
A young man figures on the book cover. In the lapel of his Victorian suit is a boutonniere of TNT. On the back cover is a picture of Malice in the sort of paramilitary jacket favoured by Stalin. Malice is Russian by origin and the Stalin garb is ironic, the TNT less so. Johann Most fits the classic image of the anarchist, calling for revolutionary violence: “Today, the importance of explosives as an instrument for carrying out revolutions oriented to social justice is obvious. Anyone can see that these materials will be the decisive factor in the next period of world history.” In the America of 1883, he recommends against revolutionaries being Do-It-Yourselfers: the smell of prepping TNT will alert neighbours, who will squeal to the authorities. Best to get it from commercial suppliers, or the armouries of the state; stuff gets pilfered from their stockpiles all the time, and guards can be bribed. Plunkett’s 1914 essay “Dynamite!” is blunt: “To oppression, to exploitation, to persecution, to police, jails, militia, armies and navies, there is but one answer—Dynamite!”
For plenty of other anarchists, change does not require violence. Ancaps ponder how markets can deliver the “services” of government and prompt the withering of the state. Murray Rothbard points out there is a “miasma of myth” that obscures the reality of state action. According to Rothbard, “The State is almost universally considered an institution of social service” but this is an illusion, for the state operates by compulsion, “by the use and threat of the jailhouse and the bayonet.”
But how to have security without the state? In their 1970 “Market for Liberty,” Linda and Morris Tannehill propose that insurance companies sell security policies. State retribution is “a nonproductive expenditure of energy,” whereas a better model is where insurance companies reimburse victims and seek payments for damages from perps. On this model, insurance adjusters replace police detectives and investigations replace trials. Nor would “a competitive private enterprise defense agency” devolve into a mafia. The point of getting rid of government is to get rid of monopoly. Security companies will compete for security dollars, settling difficult claims through binding arbitration, and, in the most recalcitrant, through coercion. However, market discipline will ensure coercion is proportionate and temporary, for providers will be jealous of their reputations. Furthermore, mafias are a consequence of legislation which labels certain transactions “vices,” generating “black markets” where mafias lurk. Ancap antinomianism takes “vices” off the table, and therewith, breeding grounds for cartels.
On the international front, David Friedman repeats an idea in Tolstoy, but gives it a creative, contemporary twist. Friedman points out that in the US an estimated ten million play paintball, a sport deriving from military exercises. Of those ten million, over two million played 15 times a year in 2006. He argues that a nation’s international security depends on a vigorous culture of domestic militias.
Inadvertently, Friedman highlights a problem with anarchism. His example is the only place in the Handbook where the idea of play surfaces. Disturbingly, from the Tannehills: “It is worthy of note here that the notion of always presuming a man innocent until he is proved guilty by a jury trial can be irrational and sometimes downright ridiculous.” Disturbing, because David Hume detects here a confusion about law. Comparing the incantations of the superstitious with the mumblings of judges and the taboos of law courts, Hume draws a distinction. Law draws on the deep well of public utility, rule of law on the gallantry of trial procedures, the gamesmanship of claim and counter claim, and showmanship before a jury. Rule of law takes its rhythm not from rationality but the moral sentiments of a fair shake. That each is owed a day in court is not “a nonproductive expenditure of energy,” but expressive of the mimickry, dress-ups, and spectacle of shared life. As Hume observes, a community’s coping with geography and history generates all manner of partialities and idiosyncrasies. Inevitable inequities in the division of labour reflect this, and the fair play of the courts reflects a critical need for public accountability even when shrouded in the mysterious and absurd taboos of establishment.